God Alone Is Master of the Heavens – Amos 5:8-9
8. The one making the Pleiades and Orion, the one turning the morning into deep darkness, and darkening day into night,
The one summoning the waters of the sea, and he poured them upon the face of the earth,
Yahweh is his name.
9. The one causing destruction to flash upon the strong, and destruction upon a fortress will come
Maker of the Constellations
The first half of verse eight talks about God as master of the heavenly bodies, while the second half of the verse (and, I think, verse nine) speaks of God as master of meteorological phenomena, so that the whole segment encompasses both levels of the physical heavens in the ancient conception. In other words, God alone is master of the heavens at any level.
What we translate as “Pleiades” and “Orion” are the words kimah and kesil. Kimah and kesil appear to be a standard pair of constellations, because we find them paired not only here but also in Job 9:9 and 38:31. We don’t know exactly which constellations these are. “Pleiades” and “Orion” are probably our best guess. The Old Testament does not spend a lot of time on constellations, so we do not have a lot of information about ancient Hebrew astronomy, for example about whether these two constellations had any special place in their conception of the night sky. The word that we translate “Orion”, kesil, is also a common word for “fool”. But we don’t know what reason the Hebrews might have had for calling it “The Fool”, if that is what this means.
It appears to me that these two constellations are mentioned as representative constellations, the two most obvious constellations that come to mind for the Israelite, kind of like the way we might mention the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper. In America, if you don’t know a single other constellation, you know the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper. If I were to say, “God is the one who made the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper,” you would understand that I do not mean to imply that God did not create Cassiopaea or Aries or Libra or Pisces. Rather, I would mean to include them, as well. This is what is called metonymy – referencing a whole by one of its parts or aspects. For example, one of the most common uses of metonymy in our popular culture is when news reporters refer to a nation’s government by the name of its capital. “Tehran Responds to White House’s Warning With Military Exercises” is a headline with two examples of metonymy – “Tehran” represents the government of Iran and “White House” represents the Executive Branch of the United States government. I think Pleaides and Orion are acting as a metonym for all the constellations in the sky.
Provider of Rain
What is Amos asserting in declaring God’s sole authority in the realms of the heavens? There is no need to view the stars or the sun and moon as deities to be worshiped and signs concealing hidden messages that can be consulted about the future or about important decisions. Wisdom to guide one in creating a successful life is not found in the stars, but only in the fear of God and in the love of his instruction. The constellations are merely God’s creations and cannot give you counsel, and people who make up stuff about the future, make reference to the stars, and write it in the newspaper sure can’t be trusted to give you sound advice. For the ancient Israelites, this meant that there is no need to seek out another deity to bring the rain upon the earth, either as a supplement or as a replacement. What I imagine happened was when God caused the drought in Israel, rather than realizing that God was not happy with them worshiping other gods in violation of the very first commandment, some bright Israelites thought, “Huh. We must not be worshiping other gods enough.” So they sought out gods who they thought might have more power over the rain, to kind of go around Yahweh.
Amos says, though, that God alone is the one who causes the water of the sea to ascend into the heavens, and he alone is the one who causes them to rain back down again. Both of these realms – the stars and the rain clouds – have to do with the Israelites’ attempts to insure their own security and to control their own destiny. But security and destiny are God’s special realm, particularly when it comes to his own peculiar covenant people. When we try to take our own security and our own destiny into our own hands, or when we try to impose our ideas about what kind of security we need or how our destiny ought to work out, or when we seek out another source of security and prosperity because God is not doing things as efficiently as we would like, we are attempting to usurp God’s sovereign authority. Faithlessness is not simply about hurting God’s feelings, as in “Poor God. You don’t trust him and now he feels sad.” No. Faithlessness is outright treason.
It also makes no sense whatsoever. Not having to worry about what I am going to eat or with what I am going to be clothed, not having to worry about whether everything is going to be alright or not is one of the benefits of the kingdom, and faithlessness is essentially willingly throwing away a benefit of the kingdom for the burden of worrying about our security and prosperity. It is repeating pretty much exactly the sin of Adam and Eve, who decided, at the serpent’s suggestion, that God was not to be trusted, that he did not know what he was talking about with the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, or worse, that he was deliberately withholding something good from them. When we seek to secure our own security or prosperity by allying ourselves with the world, that is precisely what we are doing. We do not trust God to keep us safe. We do not trust him to provide for our material needs. So we seek first the world and its material things and hope that the Kingdom and its righteousness will be added to us.
But here is the choice that God’s absolute power and sovereignty presents to us: either go all in or have none of it. If you try and merely dabble in the Kingdom of God, you won’t experience its benefits. Following Jesus isn’t something you tack on to your life like a fad diet or a popular philosophy or a social club. It is like being transferred into a totally new reality. This is why Jesus speaks of entering into the Kingdom of God as being born again. It is like dying to your present existence and being born again into a new existence, and we have to be careful not to reduce those images to mere symbols. There is a very real reality to new birth. We still share physical space with the people in the world, but I don’t live in a world governed by their values: dog eat dog, money makes the world go round, you have to look out for number one, don’t forgive someone unless they apologize (and maybe not even then), if someone hits you hit them back 10 times harder. If you live in the world, those are the rules of reality, and there’s no getting around it. The world that exists in rebellion against God is left with nothing more than the individual will to power, as Nietzsche rightly saw. Why? Because there is no just God who will certainly vindicate the righteous and punish the wicked. Wickedness works better than righteousness in a godless world.
But the world that we live in when we are born anew into Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit is governed by a completely opposite set of assumptions and values. There is a just God who will certainly vindicate the righteous and punish the wicked. He reigns even now on the throne of heaven. Because of this, righteousness and selflessness, though it appears in the short term to be impractical, undeniably works better than dishonesty, violence, and greed. The universe and humanity are not designed to function properly with Nietzschean, worldly values and assumptions. We as individuals and as a society really work best when we are both trusting and trustworthy. Suspicion, whether justified or unjustified, makes everyone’s lives more difficult. This is because we were created to be honest and dependent on God for our safety, not deceitful and obsessed with our own self-preservation.
Some would say, “Well, regardless of how we were created, we messed that up and now we have to live by different rules.” That, however, is the enemy talking, not the Spirit of God. Sure, living honestly makes us vulnerable in a world filled with dishonest people, but the dishonesty of the world is neither acceptable as an excuse for perpetuating the cycle of dishonesty nor sufficient to invalidate the principle of trusting trustworthiness – especially toward God – that is built into the very fabric of the universe. To say, “dishonesty’s just the way the world works” is still to live in a way that goes against the grain of human nature and society. Our sin does not remove God from the throne.
Bringer of Destruction
Notice that light/darkness half of verse eight moves strictly from light to darkness. It is not simply saying that God is one who causes the sun to go up and go down, but the way God is expressing his sovereignty is specifically in bringing darkness. Connected with the second half of verse eight’s focus on rain, it seems that Amos is describing the buildup of a major storm – the darkening of the skies, the gathering of the water, the pouring it back out upon the earth. The word used for the rain here is shaphakh, which means to pour out. It is not, as far as I can tell, the standard word for rain. It is a word that describes what happens when you take a pitcher of water and tip it over. So what does it mean here? It highlights the agency of God in the rain and it seems to describe a particularly heavy rain.
The verse ends, “Yahweh is his name.” Again, the point of the verse as a whole is that you should not look elsewhere for the ruler of the heavens or the ultimate cause of the rains. Who is the one who summons the water and pours it out upon the earth? It is not Baal, or Hadad, or Zeus, or Thor, or Indra. It is Yahweh and he alone. It also is not the self-sustaining purposeless and impersonal cosmos that modern pseudo-scientific atheists have made their god and who just happens by our spectacularly good luck to cause it to rain or by our spectacularly bad luck to cause it to rain too hard or too little. Yahweh, the utterly transcendent yet personal creator of all that is, who has intentionally revealed himself to humanity in the person of Jesus the Messiah, this is the one who causes it to rain. The faith of the prophet Amos professed that God himself saw to our material needs personally.
Verse nine is particularly difficult, especially the first word, hammablig, which is a participle of the rare verb balag, or “the one doing balag“. It appears to me, though, that verse nine’s imagery is a development of verse eight’s, despite the fact that the last verse ends “Yahweh is his name”, which might indicate a break in subject matter. If we do read this as a continuation of the rising storm of verse 8, the first word in the Hebrew of this verse perhaps makes more sense.
In three of its four occurrences in the Old Testament, the verb balag means to brighten up and be cheerful, particularly after a very difficult time. Grammatically, however, in Amos 5:9 this idea doesn’t work so well. Whereas in Psalm 39:13, Job 9:27, and Job 10:20 it is intransitive (meaning it has no direct object – the subject is not balag-ing something), in Amos 5:9, it appears to be transitive, having “destruction” (Hebrew shod) as its object. So what do we do?
While this verb is rare in Hebrew, its meaning appears to parallel its Arabic cognate pretty well. Arabic balaja can mean a lot of things, but they all carry a common core meaning of being bright or making something bright. So while we are not absolutely certain, it seems to make sense that to balag “destruction upon the strong” means to cause it to flash brightly. In the context of dark skies and rain, what would that be? Lightning. Again, this is not the standard way for Hebrew to talk about lightning, but this is poetry.
It might also be possible that the verb yabôʾ (“it will come”) at the end of verse nine should be read rather as Hiphil yabîʾ (“he will bring”). This only changes a waw to a yod (two letters which, in many Hebrew manuscripts, are practically indistinguishable). This change makes the last sentence say “He will bring destruction upon the fortress” rather than “Destruction will come upon the fortress”, which sounds a little more natural, and it matches the stem of hammablig at the beginning of the verse.
What is the point here? Not only is God the one who created the stars (so consulting the stars or worshiping them rather than God is vanity), and not only is God the one who governs the sky and the cycle of rain (so seeking out another deity to provide rain is vanity), but he also is the one who will bring destruction on Israel unless she repents. God is completely sovereign. The destruction of Israel and her fortresses will be due to no other reason than that God himself brings this destruction on them. In short, there is no other deity worth consulting, worshiping, or appeasing. Yahweh, God of Israel, alone is master of the heavens and of the destiny of mankind.